Re-defining Broadband in Maine What’s your opinion?

By Tracy Scheckel OTELCO

Posted 

If you’re reading this post, you are an Internet consumer, or you may be an entrepreneur who depends on the internet to conduct business; whatever your broadband needs are, your opinion about Internet speed may help shape the future of broadband in Maine.

What Defines Broadband?

When cable companies began to provide Internet access to consumers, the service was faster than traditional DSL and dial-up, and the industry coined the term to mean high-speed Internet access. Today, broadband is defined by the speed of upstream and downstream data transmission.

Who Defines Broadband?

On a national level, the current FCC standard is 25/3 Mbps, and has been a moving target for years. To confuse things even further, the speed requirements for the Connect America Fund broadband (CAF) model is 10 / 1 Mbps.

The ConnectME Authority in Maine is a quasi-government entity that administers a grant program for broadband infrastructure and planning initiatives. A recent change in the rule under which the Authority operates allows the group to adjust the definition of broadband in order to determine which locations are unserved and thus eligible for grant funding. For some time, the threshold has been 1.5 Mbps/768 Kbps meaning that any location receiving faster speeds isn’t eligible for funding. Even by FCC standards, the ConnectME threshold is inadequate, so the Authority decided to look at a potential adjustment of its definition of adequate broadband.

A publicly noticed meeting of the Board along with various stakeholders was conducted on April 9.  Part of the impetus for the meeting was to help Authority staff clarify a definition in order to have a better footing with legislators in Washington as they work to parse out funds for broadband infrastructure.

Most of the Internet providers in Maine were represented and a lengthy discussion continued for the better part of 2 hours.  The group ultimately vetted three potential standards:  10/1, 25/3, and 10/10.  The governing rule states:

The Authority must base its criteria on the state of the market as well as the performance necessary to meet the current broadband needs of common applications and network services in use in the State.

The Telecommunication Association of Maine (TAM) indicated support for 10/1 service as did Consolidated Communications and Spectrum; the Island Institute supported a minimum of 10 Mbps upload speed, Maine Broadband Coalition Co-Chair Peggy Schaffer, OTELCO, and a citizen from Waldoboro suggested a 10/10 symmetrical bandwidth.

Authority member, Ralph Johnson is the Regional CIO at MaineHealth and made an economic development case for symmetrical bandwidth.  He questioned whether Maine is building broadband for consumers or economic development. He felt that consumers – taking things FROM the Internet — could do with asymmetrical speed, but that in order for economic development to benefit, being able to send things upstream is critical.

Dr. Susan Woods is another member of the Board who founded of HiTecHiTouch, LLC, to advance health technology innovation, telehealth and virtual care, and digital inclusion.  She noted that a minimum recommended connection for one person engaged in telemedicine with a healthcare provider is 15/5.

Once all discussion was complete, Authority Chair and University of Maine System CIO, Dick Thompson asked for a recommendation from the Board. Ralph Johnson moved, and had seconded, a 10/10 standard which failed with a 2 – 2 vote of the four Authority members present. Thompson then moved 10/1 and couldn’t get a second, and Johnson in an attempt at compromise, also failed to get a second on a 25/3 proposal.

No Decision

While there was compelling testimony from all sides, it simply wasn’t enough to bring the attending Authority members to a recommendation.  Heather Johnson, ConnectME Authority Director, is hoping for more input from providers, citizens, and any other stakeholders or interested parties. That input will be reviewed and discussed at the June 22 meeting of the ConnectME Authority.

Ultimately, should the Authority determine a new standard, by rule, there would be a 30 day period for additional public comment before the change could be enacted.

Important to Note

There is a distinct difference between the minimum standard for service and the build-to speeds set forth in the grant RFP. The threshold that the Board is trying to determine is the benchmark that designates who is considered unserved and therefore eligible for funding.

Because the Authority is empowered to carry out the state broadband policy, and one of the goals is to see that there is secure, reliable, competitive and sustainable forward-looking infrastructure that can meet future broadband needsit is expected that the build-to requirements will look to the future.  The current build-to standard is 10/10, it stands to reason that should the Authority set a new minimum standard, that the build-to standard will also increase to something more futureproof.  For now, the minimum standard is the first step.

What are your thoughts?

What do you think the absolute minimum service standard should be? Should the requirement require symmetrical speeds? Contact Heather.Johnson@maine.gov, 207-624-9838 or Brooke.Johnson@maine.gov, 207-624-9849 before the June 22 meeting to share your thoughts.

Community Broadband Sticker Shock? Try a Different Approach

By Trevor Jones, OTELO   www.otelo.com

Community Broadband Sticker Shock recently hit Cambridge City Hall.

Recently, I worked with a City Councilor in Cambridge, Massachusetts to try and help the Council overcome a severe case of community broadband sticker shock.  It seems that the town had hired a consultant who had submitted a $200 million estimate for a city-wide fiber to the home network without first understanding what the City’s appetite would be for such expenditure – or, indeed, if the network being proposed was really necessary to achieve the City’s main goals.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much of my career selling things, but I would never deliver a proposal without knowing if my client had the budget for it – especially if my proposal was overkill for my customer’s pain points.  Indeed, the consultant’s entire approach seems backward to me, as if they knew that the answer was a town-owned fiber network before they asked a single question.

Cambridge’s Pain Points

At least for the couple of people I spoke with in Cambridge, their main interests lay in two specific areas:

  1. Digital Equity – Their main concern was in ensuring that residents of the City’s low-income areas and housing projects had access to affordable High-Speed Internet. Comcast’s Internet Essentials was the only option for these customers, and consensus was that it wasn’t adequate to the needs of families.
  2. Competition – The City was also interested in having a competitive marketplace for Internet access. They felt this would keep prices down, give the customers choices, and improve the quality of service.

At the same time, the city had a lot of logistical questions about what it would mean to own and operate a utility, given that unlike many Massachusetts towns and cities, they didn’t currently have a municipal electric utility, or a real desire to start one.

Solutions to Specific Problems

Of course, a city-owned fiber to the home network would address both of the key pain points, but there are other solutions that can address the city’s primary concerns for less money and minimize the need for the city to take too large a role in operating the network.

  • MTU-NDU Networks – The city’s most immediate concern was in providing something faster than Comcast’s Internet Essentials product to low income households. To the extent that these low income families are in city-owned housing projects and/or other forms of apartment buildings, a Multi-Tenant building strategy could cover a significant part of this population for a relatively small cost.  In some cases, city-owned fiber is already in the building.  In these cases it should be quite cost effective to provide Internet to the building over this fiber, and distribute to tenants using existing wiring and Very high bit rate DSL (VDSL), which is capable of delivering speeds in excess of 100mbps over short distances.
  • Hybrid Networks – In many cases, fiber-fed wireless networks can cost effectively extend the reach of new or existing fiber networks. One example of this would be to work outward from the existing fiber-fed buildings in the previous example using point-to-point wireless technologies to connect other multi-tenant buildings to the hub site.  This is the model currently used by NetBlazr to provide competitive access in Boston and Newark.  Alternately, point-to-multipoint wireless transceivers can be pole mounted or mounted to buildings to serve multiple single family homes in a “fiber to the pole” deployment.
  • Dig Once – Cambridge didn’t want to operate a network, but did want to promote a competitive marketplace for broadband. One solution that could promote this goal over the long term while requiring minimal construction costs and management headaches would be for the city to bury conduit whenever the streets are open and operate an open access conduit system, similar to the system currently operated successfully in Lincoln, NE.  City owned conduit could be leased to ISP’s interested in providing competitive broadband services, greatly reducing construction costs for market entrants.
  • Local Improvement Districts – Another way of delivering competitive services over the middle to long term to residents who can afford to pay would be the creation of Local Improvement Districts, which residents could join by paying their portion of connection costs up-front or by a direct 20-year assessment on their property. The resulting network could be operated by the city as an open access dark fiber network, with the fibers leased to ISP’s that wish for service in these districts.  It reduces public exposure to risk by guaranteeing the recovery of construction costs and giving people a strong incentive to retain their existing service.  At the same time, because it is an opt-in solution it greatly reduced the threat of political opposition; those who don’t want the service don’t have to pay.  Ammon, ID is perhaps the best known example of this.

Avoid Community Broadband Sticker Shock in your Plan

These are just a few strategies for solving the specific problems your community faces in situations where you can’t afford, or win support for, a town or city wide broadband network.  A combination of strategies may in fact be the best solution for the mix of problems you have, so make sure you clearly understand your goals first, and find a partner who is willing to work with you to design a mix of solutions to meet your goals.  If your community is facing a broadband challenge – I’d love to talk with you about it.  Please contact me.

I’d like to thank Chris Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance for his help with my presentation to Cambridge and by extension, this blog post.

Should Congress Act on Anti-Municipal Broadband Legislation?

 

This week Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) signed on to cosponsor H.R 4814, a bill that would prohibit states from passing laws impeding the construction of municipal broadband networks (anti-municipal broadband laws). Such laws currently exist in 20 states, and can make it significantly harder, if not impossible, for local governments to make direct investments in broadband infrastructure.

Access to the Internet is the most significant economic enabler of our time.  Broadband access enhances access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunity. Its importance is so clear to economic development professionals that many towns are choosing to build their own broadband networks or provide TIFs and other incentives to their local carriers in order to encourage their construction.  These towns see broadband Internet access as a key competitive advantage.  They know it will be easier to bring businesses and skilled workforces to their communities if they have high speed broadband access.

anti-municipal broadband map

A state law that prevents a town from taking action to advance broadband access, likewise, puts a community at a significant economic disadvantage as compared to similarly situated communities in neighboring states. This makes municipal broadband very much an issue of digital equity – one that hits home for us, since two of our home states, Alabama and Missouri have restrictive laws.

Interestingly, the companies that make up the OTELCO family and many others around the country were founded, built, and paid for by local farmers and businessmen in the late 1800s when private industry couldn’t make a business case to build telephone infrastructure in rural areas. What would these communities look like today if the federal government made it illegal for those farmers and businessmen to build that, then state-of-the-art, communication infrastructure?

Why States Pass Anti-Municipal Broadband Laws

Proponents of anti-municipal broadband laws take the paternalistic view that the states need to protect taxpayers, and the municipalities themselves from the investment risk should the network fail to attract enough subscribers to be self-sustaining.  While this does happen from time to time, many municipal networks are profitable.  In addition, a simple “profit and loss” calculation doesn’t always paint the whole picture for a community, which is equally interested in attracting and retaining businesses and homeowners.

Community Broadband opponents also point out that municipalities don’t necessarily have prior experience building and operating telecommunications networks – an observation that, while true in most cases, completely ignores the fact that towns usually contract with an experienced provider or providers to operate the network and serve customers. Leverett MA is a great example where OTELCO serves as the ISP and handles all customer facing functions, and Holyoke Gas and Electric is the network operator and manages the physical network infrastructure maintenance and operation.

At the end of the day, it really comes down to whether or not you believe the government should make direct investments in infrastructure or leave those investments to private industry, even in cases where private industry is not actively investing in the community.

States Taking a Different Approach

Fiber TownWhile some states are moving to restrict municipal networks, others are encouraging local action to improve broadband availability in unserved and rural areas. For example Maine has a provision for the ConnectME Authority to award planning grants and infrastructure grants to communities planning to build their own broadband networks.  Massachusetts also set aside $40 million for communities to pursue broadband solutions, although it did encourage them to work with established providers on their projects.

These investments by State governments are encouraging local investment by communities and by private industry.  Massachusetts currently has several projects underway in its Western Hill Towns, and Maine has several towns conducting feasibility studies.  In many cases, networks are being built in towns that have no Cable TV and very limited DSL – networks that might not otherwise have been built.

Congress Could Level the Playing Field

The current environment has already created digital “haves” and “have-nots,” particularly in rural areas.  The divergent paths of the states will perpetuate rural “have-nots” in some states, while states that are investing close the gap more quickly. A law that removes barriers to local investment would put the power to act in the hands of those most effected by the lack of commercial investment, and put rural Alabama on a level playing field with rural Massachusetts for Internet commerce, educations and jobs.

It takes a village to have good broadband

 By  Trevor Jones, OTT Communications

The transition that is currently taking place in the telecommunications industry hasn’t happened before.  For the first time, an all-new network is being built to replace the network that was there before – fiber instead of copper.  It’s a complicated job, and a very expensive one. Some private companies, like ours, have begun this transition on their own, while others are having a hard time justifying the expense, especially in rural areas.

Rather than be left behind, some rural communities like Islesboro in Maine and Leverett and Mount Washington, Massachusetts, are banding together and taking matters into their own hands.  It’s a big job, and if your town is considering doing the same, you’ll probably want to first look for a partner who is willing to build a network for you and bear most of the cost.  Lucky towns will find such partners.

If your community does decide that it needs to build and operate its own network, you have a big job ahead of you.  It will be important to break the job into manageable chunks, and get the right help from trusted partners to successfully serve your community.  Throughout this process, you’ll be tempted to take shortcuts or hand the reigns over to someone else who says they can do it all and save you the trouble.  In the long term, the best result will probably come when those leading the broadband effort in your community are more involved, and have more control over the process.

The Four Primary Roles in Building a Community Broadband Network

There are many moving pieces involved in bringing broadband service to a community, and while you could certainly divide it up more, there are four main roles involved in bringing a community network from concept to completion.  They are:

  • Broadband Committee. This is a local group of interested citizens who oversee the community broadband effort.  These dedicated individuals will interview potential providers, apply for grant funds, and administer RFP’s to choose the various contractors involved in building and operating the network and serving customers.  Members of this committee may also be chosen to head a governing board, such as the MLP board in Leverett and similar Massachusetts towns.
  • Design-Build Contractor. Sometimes the design and build functions are separate, but often the same firm that does your network design will have the trucks and personnel to build the network.  You may also want an independent Owner’s Project Manager to keep the design-build firm on task.
  • Network Operator. A network operator monitors and maintains the electronics on your broadband network.  When things aren’t working right, they troubleshoot problems and dispatch technicians when necessary, either from their own crews or third party contractors.
  • Internet Service Provider / Telephone Service Provider. On many municipal networks, like the one in Leverett, Massachusetts, a single Internet service provider is awarded a contract to provide service for 3-5 years.  The ISP provides the Internet and phone connections over the community’s network, along with ancillary services like email.   In addition, the ISP provides end-user technical support and customer service, as well as billing and collecting end-users and remitting the communities portion of the fees to the town.

Why One Stop Shopping May Not Be Ideal for Community Broadband Networks

Having a separate builder, operator, and ISP may seem like a lot of extra work, but you may want to consider the added effort in the best interest of your community. Just like you will want to connect your town to the Internet with diverse middle-mile connections in order to ensure reliability, having some diversity in your service providers gives you added flexibility and security over the long run.

For example, having a Network Operator that is independent from your design-build contractor provides a level of experienced, third-party oversight to protect the quality of the network being built.  The eventual operator has not only the expertise, but also a vested interest in ensuring that the network is well designed and built.

Alternately, having different entities perform the Network Operator and ISP functions on your community network will facilitate smoother transitions should you decide you need to make a change in either the network operator or the ISP.  In such situations, you have a trusted partner with their own records, systems, and expertise to help support the transition.  Things might not go so well if you only have one partner and they’re less than cooperative because they’re losing your business.   Case in point: we were able to effect a seamless transition from the prior ISP in Leverett, MA, thanks in part to the support of Holyoke Gas and Electric, the network operator in Leverett.

Need Help Planning Your Community Network Initiative?

We’d love to help.  If you’re thinking of applying for grants from the ConnectME Authority, the Massacutsetts Broadband Institute, or another state or Federal agency to assist in planning a broadband project, let us know!  We also encourage you to download our free Municipal Broadband Primer.

This post originally appeared in the OTT Communications Blog.